As Alex Rodriguez walked up to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning Thursday night, for the first time a true buzz was in the air about his pursuit of 600 home runs.
A-Rod had hit No. 599 just an inning earlier. It was a line drive to rightfield and gave fans a reason to stick around more than three hours into the Yankees' sloppy 10-4 win over the Royals at Yankee Stadium.
In the eighth, the crowd of 47,484 was on its feet. A-Rod fell behind 1-and-2 to a righthander named Blake Wood, the second strike a mighty swing and miss.
Then a couple of balls for a full count. Then a dribbler just foul down the third-base line. Finally, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Rodriguez lined a double on a couple of hops to the right-centerfield wall for his third hit and fourth RBI of the night.
As fans headed for the exits, A-Rod was replaced by pinch runner Ramiro Peña. There was no ovation as A-Rod jogged into the dugout. Apparently, Yankees fans want to see the feat more than they love the man who will achieve it, perhaps as early as Friday night.
Derek Jeter got a louder ovation when he hit an inside-the-park home run in the third inning. But Jeter doesn't have A-Rod's baggage.
It has been noted that A-Rod's pursuit of 600 has been virtually buzz-less. Maybe that's because of his admission of past PED use. Perhaps the totality of baseball's steroid and HGH problem has led to less worshipping of the long ball.
If No. 600 is hit this weekend, the celebration at the Stadium will be sincere, if less grandiose than on Aug. 4, 2007, for No. 500, when A-Rod blew a kiss to then-wife Cynthia and received a postgame call from George Steinbrenner. A lot can change in three years.
"Night and day," Rodriguez said. "A lot has changed. I'll tell you, I'm enjoying the game more now than I ever have. I get more enjoyment out of little things. Playing the team game. Not trying to do too much. Having the perspective that I have now after winning a world championship with this team."
He credits his new outlook to "what happened last November" - the Yankees winning the World Series and Rodriguez having a monster postseason.
He also didn't flinch Thursday night when asked by columnist Tara Sullivan of the Bergen Record about the dreaded "S'' word. Yes, A-Rod's legacy and his eventual home run total and perhaps his Hall of Fame candidacy can all be considered tainted by his admission of past steroid use. It's a stain that will never go away.
"I'm not sure," Rodriguez said. "I can't think for what happened outside this clubhouse . . . I think for the most part what's changed for me is about my teammates. Everything else is pretty much OK."
It took A-Rod 28 at-bats to get from 499 to 500 back in 2007, which will lead to the boring media story about whether he's "pressing" if he doesn't get it quickly. For that reason alone, here's hoping he gets it soon.
"I'm hoping it happens [Friday night]," manager Joe Girardi said. "I hope he gets it out of the way so we don't have to talk about it."
No. 500 came against Kansas City's Kyle Davies, who just so happens to be the Royals' starter Saturday. First, Rodriguez Friday night will face Brian Bannister. A-Rod is 4-for-7 lifetime with three home runs against the former Mets righthander.
Considering the quality of the opponent - last night's homer came off reliever Robinson Tejeda - chances are good Rodriguez can hit No. 600 soon. We'll leave it to you to decide how buzz-worthy you think the accomplishment really is.